1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.
2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).
3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.
4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.
5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.
7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.
8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).
9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.
10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.
11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.
12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.
Genres can be combined in any number of ways, as long as it makes sense to the listener. Smoke Season‘s Hot Coals Cold Souls EP mashes folk-style instrumentation and rhythms with the arch, electro-backed rock bombast of Muse. It’s not as weird as it sounds, because the duo knows how to set up the mood to make their tunes build from small beginnings to big conclusions. It’s a rare skill to be able to tip people off to things they haven’t imagined yet, but Smoke Season pulls mood-building tricks from country (the reverb and strum pattern in “Badlands”), R&B (the sultry vocals in “Badlands”), dancy indie (the rhythms of the opening guitar riff in “Simmer Down”), chillwave (the intro to “Opaque”) and more. This whole review feels kind of dumb, kind of like a reach, but I have to explain the sound somehow.
By the time you get to the electronic noise washes at the end of the EP, the connection to folk seems tenuous at best. But throughout the EP, it’s there. There are only subtle differences between a folk band exploding in every direction and a rock band dabbling in folk (and what is a rock band, anyway?), so maybe the distinction is silly. However you feel about the comparison, fans of folk, indie-rock, and alt-rock will enjoy the three songs of Hot Coals Cold Souls. Just go listen to it.
The album art for Conversations by Woman’s Hour is a perfect fit for the album. The smooth, pulsing, post-’80s electro-pop tunes here are pristine, streamlined and unified. They’re not exactly monochromatic, but they do all adhere to a very distinct sonic palette. Nothing is spiky or jagged here: everything is built on spacious, calming, warm vibes. The delicate “Two Sides of You” will especially appeal to fans of James Blake–as Woman’s Hour is (appropriately) fronted by a female singer, this provides an extra interesting hook to the sound. JB’s spaced-out post-dub melancholy/beauty is exactly what Woman’s Hour is offering here. (This is not chillwave; there’s little hazy or washed-out about this.) Conversations is a beautiful, calming, endearing chill-out record.
Emily and the Complexes is a male-fronted alt-rock band that takes its cues from Pedro the Lion: even though there’s significant crunch in the guitars, the emotions invoked are sad and complicated instead of angry. “Yer Boyfriend (Is a Cheapskate)” juxtaposes slow, dejected vocals with a torrent of gritty guitars and cymbal-heavy drums; that sort of quiet/loud is a staple throughout the four songs of Dirty Southern Love.
Tyler Verhagen hasn’t gotten much happier since 2012’s Styrofoam Plate Blues, as the last line of closer “Jersey City Blues” is “Rubbing alcohol or scotch / I don’t care.” He has matured some in his subject matter, as “Joshua” is about a man with a child, a mortgage, and life outlook concerns–there’s a dignity in the depiction of normal life (complete with joys and sorrows). But no matter how tough the subject matter, Verhagen is ace at writing compelling melodic lines for guitar and voice. He’s internalized the lessons of the ’90s and integrated them with the vocal and instrumental emotionality that the ’00s brought us. If you miss the desperate crunch of an alt-rock sadness, check out Emily and the Complexes.
I’ve sung the praises of Pedro the Lion throughout this blog. Given The Soldier Story’s moody indie-rock with clanging guitars, I’m going to take it as serendipitous that the second song on Rooms of the Indoors is named “A Lion.” Songwriter Colin Meyer’s voice echoes Bazan’s in tone, and the arrangement shifts from delicate thoughts to towering electric guitars at whim. The overall effect is striking, as Meyer knows how to play with tension, using layering and juxtaposition excellently.
He also knows how to make individual instrumental parts complement each other without competing: The complex, beautiful “When the Thieves Came” is constructed as if it were half clockwork and half Rube Goldberg Machine. Halfway through the tune, Meyer’s playing a spiky ditty on a clean guitar with a kick-drum stomp; the next second, the guitars and bass have distorted, the drums amp up to full-set freakout, and it sounds like a post-hardcore jam a la The Felix Culpa. Then it goes directly back to the spiky little ditty, without feeling disjointed at all. (Meyer got some songwriting help on this track from Jonny Rodgers, no stranger to intricate construction himself.)
Those skills transfer over to the rest of the tunes, whether it’s the fragile, William Fitzsimmons-esque folk of “Gray Clean Suit”; the experimental intro of “Through the Trees”; or the vast, expansive title track, which grows from a forlorn acoustic strum to a rapturous, wild conclusion. Rooms of the Indoors is an album that unfolds its intricacies over multiple listens. I found it interesting the first time, but I see it as much more than that now. Meyer has moving songwriting skills that will grip you, if you give him your attention. Recommended.
It blows my mind that Matt Shaw’s Ghosts in the Concrete came out in 2004. Matt Shaw created an electronic indie-pop world that was more lush and developed than The Postal Service’s take on the genre, and Ghosts has remained one of my favorite releases I’ve ever reviewed at Independent Clauses. Shaw’s band City Light just released its sophomore album Memory Guide, and it builds out his indie-pop sensibilities with hip-hop and electronica overtones to make a very engaging album.
Shaw has always used his melodic gifts to create tunes of foreboding or downright dread; even in the musically chipper Ghosts the main themes were urban malaise and future panic. City Light’s debut album fashioned a fitting musical sheath for these ideas, creating “moody, haunting, electronic indie-rock.” Memory Guide swings back toward the balance in his solo work: upbeat songs that deliver downbeat lyrics. The album does have some dark, haunting arrangements, like the excellent instrumental “Memory Loss,” but the overall tone is much brighter. “Sweet Death” is a buoyant dance song about getting old, while “Waste Away” is a stomping rock track with sparkly lead guitar. As you can see from the titles, however, Shaw hasn’t gotten any more optimistic in his musings.
My favorite moments apart from the surprisingly dance-able pessimism are “Wrecking Ball” and “You Know This Song,” which both strip away the bravado of a full band and operate much more like the small, cohesive, claustrophobic Shaw tunes I so adored on Ghosts. “Wrecking Ball” pairs a lazy, fingerpicked, clean guitar line with a trip-hop beat, some fuzzy organs and bgvs; it works beautifully. “You Know This Song” employs a similar strategy, letting the focus fall squarely on Shaw’s beautiful, evocative voice.
Shaw’s blurry, bleary tenor is one of the things that attracted me most to his work, and it is in fine form here. Comparisons to Ben Gibbard miss the gauzy/gritty edge that Shaw cultivates; references to pop-era Flaming Lips don’t give Shaw enough credit for hitting notes (which, as an avowed Flaming Lips fan, is something I can fully admit that Wayne Coyne does not often try to do). It is a distinct, passionate, memorable voice, and one that can suck me into any tune. It’s worth your price of admission just to hear it.
City Light’s indie-pop tunes have a complexity far beyond what I’ve described; the arrangements are strong, the songwriting is tight, and the performances are spot-on. There’s a lot going on and a lot to love. The most important things to note, though, are that these are fun, clever, and interesting tunes by some experienced hands. I highly recommend Memory Guide to any fan of indie-pop, electronic or no.
Pedro the Lion’s work was raw and honest, musically and lyrically: David Bazan grappled with his faith, his insecurities, and his culture in an alt-rock-ish idiom that hadn’t generally been reserved for that sort of work. Bazan’s retirement of the moniker was a sad day for me. With PTL long since gone, there aren’t that many bands holding a torch for the sort of emotionally vulnerable rock that can range in volume from forlorn slowcore to cymbal-rush pounding.
DL Rossi aims for that space with his music. His self-titled record is composed of confessional alt-rock (“The Fool,” “12 Step Plan”) and instrospective acoustic work (“Worked Up,” “Be Alone”) that complement each other in tone. Rossi also takes after Bazan lyrically, covering religion, relationships, and culture in a cynical-yet-hopeful sort of way. “12 Step Plan” is bitingly critical of mega-church Christianity, while “The Fool” is possibly even more vitriolic on the subject. Both tunes are hooky, energetic pop-rockers with a low-end crunch and indie-pop melodies; while these tunes would fit in on rock radio, they have a different flair and feel to them than your average rock track.
Other tunes tackle relationships, including the bombastic single “Strange Thing” and the Parachutes-esque “Suckers and Chumps.” (You probably don’t need me to tell you what they’re about, based on the titles.) The quieter tunes, like the latter, land gently, showing ache and pain without getting (too) maudlin. As soon as the emotions start to get a bit much, Rossi lightens the mood with some rock. It’s a good balance throughout.
I don’t listen to too many rock albums straight through anymore, but I’ve heard this one from end to end several times because of its diversity in sound. Rossi simply churns out high-quality tunes. He may be the spiritual and melodic successor to Pedro the Lion, but he could be much more than that as he matures as an artist. Very worth watching.
So I didn’t post much in June, so all of the June singles are getting posted now. This means that instead of one mix, there are two: a loud one and a quiet one. I’ll start today with the loud one.
1. “Strange Thing” – DL Rossi. Pedro the Lion has left few followers in the emotive alt-rock space, but DL Rossi is a welcome addition to the space. He also brings in Bazan’s qualms with Christianity, although Rossi seems to hold fast to the tenets of the faith while contending with some practices of Christianity. Also, he has a Mumford-ian penchant for dramatic f-bombing.
2. “Glaciers” – The Trouble Starts. Daniel G. Harmann has completed his transition from bedroom indie-pop hero to rock band by dropping his name off the front of the group. Here’s a roiling, churning example of the newly-christened group’s output. Foo Fighters’ fans will approve.
3. “All the Lights in New York” – Autumn Owls. The fractured folk of Autumn Owls casts its foggy, urban, streetlight glow on you. You smile uncertainly, and step forward into the gloom.
4. “We Are the Dreamers” – The Stargazer Lilies. Shoegazer Lilies, maybe, plus some Portishead dread and staccato stomp. Overall, a very different dream than Teen Daze’s chillwave dreaming. But still quite engaging!
5. “Be Someone” – Post War Years. The Postal Service + Passion Pit = Post War Years. Clicky, hooky, fun, and now with 100% more xylophone!
6. “Cut Free” – The Alibis. Yo, this ’90s-style Brit-pop track is all about the excellent bass player. I look forward to more fascinating work from this band.
7. “Bystander” – Shotgun No Blitz. Shotgun No Blitz might be the best possible pop-punk name, calling up youthful games, playful but aggressive contact, friendly agreement, and speed. And the spread offense, which I just like.
8. “We’re the Kids” – Parade of Lights. New formula for massive single: use the word kids, employ that specific synth noise, and crank the bass. MONEY.
The genius of Pedro the Lion’s songwriting was the ability to combine minimalist singer/songwriter arrangements with loud indie-rock almost seamlessly. Illustrated Manual‘s The Long and Tangled Beard splits that difference neatly as well, allowing the deeply personal subject matter to find whatever proper mood it needs. “The Invisible Line” sets the tale of a first sexual encounter against the backdrop of a fragile piano line and slowly building arrangement. “Hiding the Boy” sets another intimate story against a solo acoustic guitar backdrop; “The Time Traveler” starts with airy synths and gentle acoustic guitar before snapping to attention as a driving pop/rock piece.
All of these tunes are directed by Jonathan Cooke’s fluid, gripping vocals; Cooke had vocal cord surgery during the process of making this album, but you’d never be able to tell. His vocal melodies are strong, and his tone is impeccable. It’s the perfect fit for intimate songs like these, as it feels as if Cooke is in the room with me, having a quiet conversation about his life. This album is the sort that doesn’t leave your mind or iPod quickly: this level of execution in the lyrical, instrumental and vocal arenas doesn’t come around that often. The Long and Tangled Beard is a must-hear.
At first glance, it wouldn’t seem that Hemmingbirds‘ The Vines of Age is a kitchen-sink album, as “My Love, Our Time is Now” establishes a pastoral folk-pop sort of mood for the album. But by the middle of the track, it has morphed into a towering rock song complete with walloping drums. This is basically how Hemmingbirds roll: they play everything from really quiet to really loud, without regard for whether that will be jarring. One of the thrashiest tunes, “Heart Attack,” cuts off abruptly from its wailing guitar, howling vocals and whirlwind drums and drops directly into the intricate, gentle solo acoustic guitar of “Through the Night.” They’re good at both ends of their spectrum, but yikes; that’s some heavy whiplash.
Another standout is “Toxic Noise,” which exercises as much restraint as it can before exploding in a gigantic, early-Walkmen rock track. It’s like Bon Iver secretly also wanted to be Jack White, so he did both his thing and JW’s thing at the same time. Again, both sides of the spectrum are good, and the mishmash makes songs like “My Love” and “Toxic Noise” into the successes they are. Don’t expect to have a single mood throughout The Vines of Age; you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to hear some unique songs, you’re in the right place.
The Griswolds‘ four-song Heart of a Lion EP is one of the most fun releases I’ve heard in 2012. This seems like an Australian cross between The Strokes and Vampire Weekend, with the energetic cool of the first and the perky rhythms of the second thrown into a blender and set to the “fun” setting. There are infectious “oh-oh-ohs” in the title track; rumbling toms and animated bass lines mark “The Courtship of Summer Preasley”; falsetto works its way into my heart in the charming “Red Tuxedo.” There’s only ten minutes of music here, but whoa, those ten minutes. They rule. Watch out for The Griswolds in 2013.
Avant-garde music generally doesn’t agree with me, so I don’t cover it much on IC. But there are exceptions, such as Kai Straw‘s To Pearl Whitney, From Howland Grouse In Loathing. The album was pitched to me as “experimental poetry”; that might make you think of rap, but lead track “sexlovesoul” is an intense a capella piece that blurs the lines between rap and spoken word. The story it tells is one of a relationship found and lost and found, spread over an entire life. It was deeply moving, inspiring me to check out the rest of the 21-song album. What proceeds is a highly idiosyncratic mix of poetry, rapping, electronica, jazz and even some acoustic guitar. The lead is always Straw’s voice, which he has fine-tuned to be precise and highly tonal (even when speaking). The lyrics he sings and speaks are varied, from songs of death and destruction (“The Champion,” “2,000”) to elaborate daydreams (the near-parody “Vanity Fair,” “Boogie Nights”) to relationship troubles (“Drunk,” “sexlovesoul”).
The best tunes are the ones that don’t invest the most in the arrangement; while tunes like “Yakuza 21” and “Dionysius” have well-developed backing beats (squelching electronica and traditional R&B, respectively), taking the focus off the vocals is not the best move for Straw. That’s not because the beats aren’t strong; it’s that his voice is so engaging and intriguing that I want to hear it unfiltered. If you’re into hip-hop for the lyrical prowess, you should check out Kai Straw’s work. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Me and My Ribcage by The Widest Smiling Faces doesn’t sound that experimental on first blush. The wistful title track opens the album and introduces the listener to a sound somewhere between the moving soundscapes of The Album Leaf and the minimalist slowcore of Jason Molina and Red House Painters. The high, tentative, child-like vocals tip this off as slightly out of the ordinary, however. The album unfolds as a collection of beautiful, relaxing tunes, not so far off from bands like Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) or Pedro the Lion at its quietest. None of the elements in the album are particularly virtuosic in their performance, but the arrangements of piano, guitar and voice are arresting. If you’re looking for a quiet, melodic, gorgeous album, you should look the way of The Widest Smiling Faces.
I was aware that The Miami had some experimental in them when I reviewed their album “I’ll Be Who You Want Me to Be”, but they ratchet that mode up in their exciting EP “Ring Shouts”. The Miami is a duo that recreates old spirituals, hymns and folk tunes in often-mournful style, stretching the source material in unusual and unexpected ways. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” has a grating noise butting up against the plain, acoustic accompaniment; this juxtaposition seems to inspire fear in the vocalist/narrator and uneasiness in this listener. The 78 seconds of “Barbed Wire” are an a capella tune with only one person clapping and stomping to back it up, while the swirling, mysterious synths of “Motherless Child” combine with the acoustic guitar and vocals for a heartwrenchingly sad piece.
Then, they throw all that sad stuff overboard and close out the EP with “Kneebone,” a call-and-response tune that is easily the catchiest and happiest tune they’ve ever put out. It’s still got a long introduction that abruptly quits before the vocals come in and a drowsy coda to connect it with the rest of the tunes, but it’s a fun song to hear and to sing along with. Because even the most experimental of us enjoy a good singalong every now and then.
I just read a piece about the early ’80s Athens, GA, scene by Anthony DeCurtis, and he asserts that the main thing people did there was dance. Seeing as the B-52s erupted from that college town, I can get behind that. Androcles and the Lion, however, do not share this body rockin’ predisposition with their geographical forebears. The Athenians in A+L are pensive indie-rockers, although their sound occasionally skews harder than your average rainy day band.
“All We Were” opens As Far as Blindness Could See with a sheet of morphing distortion that blends into some humming synths before breaking out into a pulsing rhythm. It’s vaguely spacey, in a Spiritualized sort of way; it’s a familiar and comforting experience. “Eulogy” is as loud as A+L gets, with clanging guitar offsetting the mopey vocals and oscillating synths. While it’s not bad, it’s easily the least memorable track, as A+L’s melodic bent is showcased much better in their quieter tunes.
“The Creek That Ran Behind Our House” depends on acoustic guitar and banjo for the basis of the tune, and calm vocals (recalling Damien Jurado) sell the tune perfectly. It’s the type of tune you put near the end of mixtapes and just chill to. Even when the arrangement fills out and speeds up, it’s still pretty downtempo (although the clanging guitar is a bit unnecessary). “Tired Voices” is just that, and it’s an apt closer to the 7-song EP.
Androcles and the Lion have a slow-paced, sad-eyed take on indie-rock. If Pedro the Lion and Ladies and Gentlemen-era Spiritualized had gotten together and covered each other’s songs, this may have sounded like it. If that’s as intriguing to you as it is to me, you’ll have a lot to shout about in As Far as Blindness Could See.
Slave songs developed to encode the experience of temporal suffering and the longing for Earthly emancipation into the language of religious suffering and heavenly freedom. The hopes and fears of slaves are memorialized in those oft-mournful songs.
The Miami‘s “I’ll Be Who You Want Me To Be” is a translation of eight traditional African-American, but not exclusively slave, lyrics into a very modern indie genre that emphasizes the world-weary, beaten down aspects. The Miami, a duo of self-proclaimed “middle-class, secular, well-educated college kids,” sounds a lot like the most downtrodden moments of Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado. In fact, my favorite Pedro the Lion song (a heartbreaking version of traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision”) is similar to The Miami’s reinvention techniques. The Miami, however, eschews all familiar markers from the songs — you’ll never recognize “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — to bring the tragedy of the words to the forefront.
It’s interesting that The Miami wears its secular background on its sleeve. Some lyrical meaning dissipates if the songs are being understood outside of an eternal hope – the afterlife wasn’t the only meaning of the words, but it was certainly a part of it. However, in translating not only the lyrics of the songs but the meaning of the tunes into a world-weary (“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”), “lo-fi,” occasionally avant garde (“If He Changed My Name”) genre, The Miami is free to make reference to the modern music world’s redemption stories.
And lo-fi (which at this point in history is an aesthetic choice, not an actual fidelity level) is about as redemptive as the current story runs. There are stops and starts in performance throughout the album; the album isn’t perfect, nor is it intended to be. There are intentionally unfixed “mistakes” (what a modern radio-listener would call mistakes, at least).
This, I believe, points out that The Miami is not broadcasting from some high tower: they are normal people, just like the listener. The acknowledgment of human collective (which is what the original slave songs produced) is here as well: the erratic, idiosyncratic aspects of the album were chosen to show that this is how we do mourning these days – and we can all tap in to that.
At least, “all” of those who ascribe to a Pitchforkian ideal of lo-fi recording as ideological purity. The vocal performance of “I Shall Not Be Moved” can be described as hysterical, strangled and occasionally atonal; it sounds glorious as juxtaposed against a beautiful, stately keys backdrop. There are large swaths of people who would only hear the vocals and hate it. The atypically loud and distorted ending to “I Danced in the Morning” will call up all sorts of garage-rock comparisons, which will turn off other people. Just the fact that I invoked Pedro the Lion will turn away some.
“I’ll Go Where You Want Me To Go” is not for everyone. It’s as much (if not more) fun to think about than to actually listen to, especially in the more difficult songs. But it does possess a beauty for those willing to look and listen deeply (“Ring Out, Wild Bells,” especially). It’s an unusual album, but it has distinct worth and merit that I enjoy.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.